What Brett Hull’s 86-goal season teaches us about today’s NHL game
Every hockey fan has been there: It’s late in the game, your team is trailing by a goal, you’ve put down the beer and stepped away from the chair to get closer to the TV as a pass goes cross ice to a would-be sniper at the top of the slot. It’s not a pass that he can one-time, so he stops it, settles the puck, picks his spot, positions himself for a wrist shot, and let’s fly... by which time the goalie, with all of those ministrations taking place, has had time to slide across the crease and snap his glove forward to make a save that will play throughout the night on the NHL Network. Your team takes home the loss.
It feels like goalies and their tank-like body armor have gotten into the heads of shooters in the current version of the NHL, with its emphasis being placed on putting the puck in an exact location—normally right under the crossbar—instead of uncorking a shot as quickly as possible. Call it the lost art of the quick release. One-timers are bigger than ever, but that particular laser beam choice of offensive weaponry aside, you can’t help wondering what might occur if more players took an approach similar to the one Brett Hull of the St. Louis Blues made NHL history with 25 years ago during the 1990-91 campaign.
Not, of course, that anyone can sanely put those Hullsian-type expectations on any current player outside of maybe Alexander Ovechkin—and it's probably too late for that—but Hull’s career year of career years is worth revisiting on account of both its wonderful, near-miraculous oddity, and as a sort of reminder of what can be accomplished with a shot that sacrifices some velocity and accuracy for an uptick in surprise and derring-do.
Hull popped for a remarkable 86 goals that season, which is to say had Wayne Gretzky never existed, Hull would have tallied the most goals in a single NHL year. More than Mario Lemieux ever did, Phil Esposito, anyone you might think of. His goal total—and this is almost impossible to do—also nearly doubled his assist mark of 45. He finished second in the league in scoring behind Gretzky (131 points to the Great One’s 163), took home the Hart Trophy as MVP, and was responsible for nearly 30% of the Blues’ entire goal output. Bonkers, right?
Paradoxical bonkers, too, in some ways: Hull had an above average shot, certainly, and one of the best in the league in his prime, but nothing unique by any means. He wasn’t in the same galaxy as his father Bobby as a skater, and he could even look plodding at times. Fleshing out his offensive game further, he wasn’t an adroit passer, as his assist total suggests. And one has to wonder, too, how many of those assists were a result of a teammate banging in a rebound from Hull’s latest shot on goal, of which he had a league-leading 389 that year.
And it’s not as if the Blues were loaded with offensive firepower that could spread a defense’s focus thin. Hull’s regular set-up man, Adam Oates, was basically like Hull inverted, in some ways, registering 115 points on the back of only 25 goals. It’s rare to see a player hit 100 points with these kinds of statistical imbalances. Normally, if you’re putting up 100 points, you’re a 50-50 guy, a 40-60 guy, an upper 30s-upper 60s guy. But this was basically a two man operation, as symbiotic an offensive relationship as the game has ever seen, with the next closest Blues scorer not even hitting the 60-point mark.
How did Hull do it?
Net presence was a factor, as if he were a goalie in reverse, knowing the spots in which to situate himself and when to do so, but perhaps more lethal was the rapidity of Hull’s release. There was little in the way of switching from backhand to forehand for a shot, as is the norm now, and if the puck was in his skates, it was kicked up to his stick and flung net-wards all in same motion, like a mini, self-generated one-timer that turned an otherwise nettlesome pass into an assist.
And it’s not like everyone was lighting it up with remarkable twine-rippling prowess that season. There was a three-way tie for second in the league in goals, with Cam Neely, Theo Fleury, and Steve Yzerman each bagging 51, a difference of 35 between first and second place, which is a sniper-worthy season in its own right.
It didn’t hurt, too, that Hull was akin to a great white shark, in that everything the shark does—how it swims, observes, sleeps, even—is geared towards securing its prey. So it went with prime era Hull, before his game became more fleshed out while his offensive skill declined later in his career.
Hull was a veritable space merchant, seeking lanes, little plots of vacant ice, with an internal clock that allowed him to read plays, know when to get to a particular patch of ice, and deposit the puck that had newly arrived there into the back of the net. You watch the highlights, and you think, well, that’s pretty simple, and also bereft of the often Nijinsky-esque visual artfulness that marks so many goals today (those that aren’t, that is, a result of net traffic and deflections), but if you’ve ever played so much as pond hockey, you know that it feels exactly the same, and counts for exactly as much, whether the puck goes in off your knee pad or you just roofed it at the end of a coast-to-coast rush.
Goalies right now have, on balance, the advantage over shooters like never before. Composite sticks do their bit to mitigate that, but with defensive systems being what they are, goalies being gargantuan in size and further outfitted with equipment that looks like it was loaned out from Strange Brew, netminders are what Major League pitchers were in the late 1960s. They thrive, though, on seeing shots, and being able to square up on a shooter, even if that means driving across their crease to do so. Watching Hull, one saw so many pucks simply beat the goalie to the post he was trying to get to.
Then again, ain’t no one, really, like Hull. Mike Bossy had a similarly quick release, but his game involved playmaking—he once had 83 assists in a season—and more up and down flow, for all of his virtuoso slot play. Tim Kerr was somewhat Hull-like, and had a big goals-to-assists discrepancy, but he started out as a part-time center. Playing Hull in the middle would be like asking Zdeno Chara to become a power winger.
The best comparable might be Neely, but the version of Neely at the end of his career (a time at which, interestingly, he was teamed with Oates, one of the most undersung offensive dynamos in league history), when the body checks became fewer and fewer between, and Neely became a similar merchant of space, drifting, drifting, drifting, then boom, rifling a puck two inches off the ice just inside the far post, beating the goalie with a fast reaction.
Amazingly, for all of those shots on goal, Hull was also third in shooting percentage that season, a stat that is usually meaningless, but which becomes more meaningful, as for what a higher percentage entails, the more shots you put on net. And while Hull’s singular season can serve as both tutorial and inspiration, no one, ever, has buried pucks quite like he did during that run, when the next closest guys in the league had about as many goals as we can expect the league leaders to have come the end of this season. Puck-burier extraordinaire, like some genius goal sexton. But hey, slot tenants: Shoot the freaking thing. It’s not picking off those pie tins at the Skills Competition.